Rick Ludwin, who oversaw late-night programming at NBC for many years but is probably best known for backing the sitcom “Seinfeld” when it seemed the network might drop it before the show started its storied run, died on Sunday at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 71.
The cause was organ failure, said Daniel Ludwin, his nephew.
Mr. Ludwin — who at the time was in charge of NBC’s late-night shows, including “Saturday Night Live,” “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night With David Letterman,” as well as specials — was part of the “Seinfeld” origin story as it evolved from a possible one-time 90-minute special to fill in for “S.N.L.” to a weekly series.
But when the pilot for what was then called “The Seinfeld Chronicles” was screened for audiences, they were underwhelmed.
“The test audiences felt the supporting cast was not strong enough and Jerry himself was a weak lead,” Mr. Ludwin said in “Seinfeld: How It Began” (2004), a documentary that was part of a “Seinfeld” DVD release.
But Mr. Ludwin — who was not a comedian but had once sold jokes to Bob Hope — felt Mr. Seinfeld had an original voice that needed a champion and was willing to take a chance on the show, created by Mr. Seinfeld and Larry David, about four misanthropic friends in Manhattan.
“I felt we had a show there,” Mr. Ludwin said in the documentary, recalling his pitch to Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC Entertainment: “I’ll take two hours out of my specials budget, split that into four half-hours, and that will be our order for ‘Seinfeld.’”
The four shows ran on Thursday nights in May and June of 1990 as a prelude to the 12 episodes that began airing the next January and a full season that began that fall. It was not an immediate hit but eventually became one of the seminal sitcoms of all time.
Mr. Ludwin, who worked with Johnny Carson during his last years as “Tonight Show” host, said he was the rare NBC executive Carson admitted to his inner circle.
“I could do a Bob Hope imitation and he’d like to hear me do it,” Mr. Ludwin said in a 2007 interview with The Miamian, the alumni magazine of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which he attended. “I found out later that I was one of the few people he’d talk to before the show.”
Richard Adam Ludwin was born on May 27, 1948, in Cleveland. His father, Daniel, was the supervisor of parks and recreation in Rocky River, a suburb of Cleveland. His mother, Leanore (Prucha) Ludwin, owned a construction, heating and air-conditioning company.
Rick’s early fascination with television found an outlet at Miami University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. While there, he hosted a comedy-variety series on the campus TV station.
“I had this love for live television,” he told The Miamian. “There was nothing more exciting.”
After earning a master’s degree in communications at Northwestern University, Mr. Ludwin worked for TV stations in Detroit and Chicago before returning to Cleveland for a job as a producer and talent booker on “The Mike Douglas Show.”
He was hired by NBC Entertainment as director of variety programs in 1980 — a job that let him work on prime-time specials with Bob Hope — and eventually rose to become executive vice president of late-night programming and specials.
The immersion in late night made him an aficionado of its hosts and programs, dating to the days of Steve Allen. NBC’s long period of dominating the hours after prime time provided him with perspective about the difficulty of hosting successful late-night programs.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2001, he recalled reading about the host of a new talk show — a man he did not name — who said that he had taken the job to have more time with his children, which acting did not afford him.
“I thought: ‘Do you think taking this job is going to give you more time with your kids? Come on down, let’s see your best pitch, pal.’” Referring to the show, he added: “It was over shortly.”
In the early 1990s, Ludwin was one of the NBC executives who presided over the difficult changeover of “Tonight” hosts from Carson to Jay Leno. Like many of the NBC executives in Burbank, Mr. Ludwin preferred the easygoing Mr. Leno to the irascible Mr. Letterman, who had long hoped to replace Carson.
Mr. Ludwin was also Conan O’Brien’s advocate when Mr. O’Brien struggled with bad ratings and barbed criticism after replacing Mr. Letterman at “Late Night.”
“Pretty much everyone at the network thought I should be canceled,” Mr. O’Brien said on Monday night on his TBS show, “Conan.” “He argued passionately for me with the network, and he helped keep me on the air during those first two years.”
Mr. Ludwin was in favor of having Mr. O’Brien replace Mr. Leno as the host of “Tonight” in 2009. At the time, Mr. Leno was given a nightly prime-time show at NBC. Neither show thrived, and Mr. Leno returned to “Tonight” in 2010. Mr. O’Brien left NBC for TBS later that year.
Mr. Leno was unhappy with Mr. Ludwin over his part in those maneuvers and stopped communicating with him after he returned to “Tonight.” Mr. Leno retired from the show in 2014 and was replaced by Jimmy Fallon.
In 2011, Mr. Ludwin stepped down from NBC and served as a consultant for a year.
He leaves no immediate survivors.
Seth Meyers, the current host of “Late Night,” said on his show Monday that when he was a writer at “S.N.L.,” cherished gifts would sometimes arrive for him and other writers from Burbank in an interoffice envelope — a page from a sketch on which Mr. Ludwin wrote: “This played great. Rick.”
Mr. Meyers added: “You’d save them so when you had a bad week, you had this proof, according to a legend, that something you had written had played great.”
Mr. Meyers said the show’s writers inaugurated a new tradition: forging Mr. Ludwin’s encouraging words on pages of scripts that had bombed and slipping them under the writer’s door.
“When I told Rick we had started to do that,” Mr. Meyers said, “he was delighted.”
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